The cover story of the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic is a 14,000-word behemoth titled “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” It’s worth your time to read, but if you don’t have the bandwidth, then not to worry. We can sum up the article’s (reluctant) answer for you in one word: porn.
Porn is the single most influential reason young people the world-over aren’t having sex. At least, that is the clear message author Kate Julian’s article sends. For readers of this blog, porn’s emerging influence over human sexuality won’t necessarily come as a surprise, but it seems to have frustrated Julian, who goes to impressive lengths (and length) to tease out a non-porn-related explanation for the world’s current “sex recession.” Yet, Julian’s insistence that the problem is not just porn, that it can’t really just be porn, only highlights porn’s obvious dominance.
Of the five probable culprits she identifies in her investigation of the mysterious decline in young people having sex – masturbation, romantic immaturity, dating apps, bad (painful) sex, and inhibition – Julian cannot help but tie three directly to the influence of pornography. Her interview subjects report how masturbating to porn serves as “just enough” of a substitute for sexual intimacy to “placate [sexual] imperatives”, how porn sets a shame-inducing standard for what naked bodies and genitalia should look like, and how porn serves as a warped instruction manual for at-best unsatisfying, and at-worst injurious, sexual encounters. (Even Julian’s misguided doubts about the dangers of porn addiction and porn-induced erectile dysfunction find a quasi-foil in none other than Ian Kerner.)
When the article doesn’t explicitly point the finger at porn, the ubiquity of screens as the sole medium of young people’s social interaction betrays porn’s behind-the-scenes influence. The same screens that Julian’s subjects use for watching porn also serve double-duty as a means of initiating sexual advances, and also avoiding them. Young men swipe right on Tinder in furious pursuit of an elusive sexual partner, while young women stare into their phones in purposeful avoidance of any perceived come-on from a real, live human. So pervasive is screens’ mediating influence in Julian’s telling that these young people find it quaint, but also unsettling and threatening, to interact with a potential romantic partner in person.
What’s more, declining sexual intimacy among young people isn’t just an American phenomenon. Julian reports that countries in Europe and Asia have observed it in their young people too, despite distinct cultural differences among their populations. What could explain the common trend? Julian points to a correlation with the emergence of widespread broadband internet access in each country. In other words – say it with us – porn.
Let’s pause here to acknowledge, as Julian does, that young people having less sex isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Abstinence among teens and early 20-somethings can prevent a host of social ills. Teen pregnancy goes down. Rates of sexually transmitted diseases drop. High school sweethearts make it home by curfew with their clothes on straight.
And yet, as Julian points out, something is amiss. People around the world who are at the height of their sexual energy and fertility are avoiding sex on a population-level scale. Think about that. Think about the fact that forty-three percent of Japan’s population between 18 and 34 – 43%! – are virgins. Consider that, if Julian’s interview subjects are representative, young Americans find it “creepy” to say hello to someone to whom they’re attracted unless a screen mediates the interaction. Even after accounting for the benefits of a decline in teen moms and STDs, we’re still left with a dramatic shift in human behavior. And dramatic shifts, in our experience, presage chaos.
Still, all is not lost. If the Atlantic’s article leaves you feeling concerned for the future of humanity, take heart in knowing that young people have begun to fight back against the tech and porn industries’ unregulated global experiment in manipulating their sexuality and social behavior. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen a steady stream of op-eds from university newspapers across the country rejecting the influence of porn, screens, and social media on the student-age generation. At Notre Dame, groups of men and women called for the university to filter porn from the campus wifi network, calling adult content an affront to human dignity and highly addictive. At Fairfield University, a student writer observed the “growing reliance on technology is an epidemic that deeply affects everyone with access to a phone.” The student newspaper at Colorado State called out social media for “making us … anti-social.” Since the beginning of the school year, similar articles have appeared in student newspapers at Mississippi State, and Pitt, and Southeastern Louisiana, among others.
So, let’s not write the obituary of humankind just yet. Maybe the very same young people whose sexual behavior has departed so drastically from the norm will lead the way out of the virtual world and back into the real one, sex and all.
Longer-form writing from the PornHelp team on current topics relating to problem porn use and recovery.